By Catherine E. Shoichet
(CNN) — Shopping carts crammed supermarket checkouts. Waves crashed along the Atlantic coast. Officials warned of rising waters and strong winds.
Hours before making landfall, Hurricane Sandy sent thousands scrambling for higher ground Sunday and was set to shut down the subway in the city that never sleeps.
“What is strange about this storm is that it is not even here, but we are already seeing its effects,” said Penelope Penn, who snapped photos of rough waves in Hampton Roads, Virginia, for CNN’s iReport. High winds had knocked out power to some in the area, she said. And some local stores were sold out of bottled water and generators, hours before the full brunt of the storm was expected to hit.
No matter where Sandy makes landfall, forecasters said residents along the East Coast should brace themselves for bad weather.
The massive storm system will pack powerful winds and could cause life-threatening storm surges up to 11 feet high, even if it’s no longer a hurricane when it hits, said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center.
“The system is so large that I would say millions of people are at least in areas that have some chance of experiencing either flash flooding or river flooding,” Knabb said.
Local and state officials along the East Coast have joined meteorologists in trumpeting the storm’s potential breadth and impact, especially if it collides with a cold front from the West to create a “superstorm” that stalls over the Eastern Seaboard for days.
“This is nothing to play with, and this is nothing to take lightly. So take it seriously. I know that we are,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday as he announced the planned shutdown of subway, bus and commuter rail service as the storm nears on Sunday night.
Computer models predict portions of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia could see up to a foot of rain. And even though it’s still October, communities in and around the Appalachian Mountains could be socked by heavy snow.
Hurricane Sandy has already proven to be deadly, with officials blaming the storm for at least 60 deaths. That figure includes 44 people in Haiti, with 12 more reported missing. Another 16 deaths in Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico were blamed on the storm.
At 11 a.m. ET Sunday, the National Hurricane Center put the storm at about 250 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Sandy was moving at about 14 mph with 75 mph maximum sustained winds.
By Sunday morning, a mix of heavy rain and strong winds lashed North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Sandy’s storm surge washed out parts of North Carolina 12 — the state highway that links the islands with the outside world.
But officials were cautiously optimistic they’d been spared some of the storm’s wrath.
“You never want to say Sandy has been good to us or easy on us, because Mother Nature can deal you a pretty tough blow, but we’re blessed with how this storm has tracked,” Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, told CNN affiliate WRAL.
As millions of people in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast prepared for the storm’s arrival, with thousands evacuating, Drew Wojtkowski said he was playing the odds with Hurricane Sandy, planning to ride out the massive storm on Sunday at his oceanfront home on the Outer Banks.
“This is just the inconvenience of living by the ocean,” Wojtkowski told WRAL.
Evacuation in North Carolina was optional, but authorities in a number of low-lying areas across the Northeast have issued mandatory evacuation orders.
That includes some parts of New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday, where 72 public schools were set to serve as shelters.
Residents of New Jersey’s barrier islands, from Sandy Hook south to Cape May, were ordered to evacuate by Sunday afternoon, as were people at Atlantic City casinos.
“I would much rather people stay in their homes,” said Gov. Chris Christie, who issued the order Saturday. “But the fact of the matter is, if we’re looking at hurricane force winds on the barrier islands sustained for 24 hours or more, it is simply unsafe for people to be there.”
Carol Elliott said she was concerned, but won’t be leaving her North Wildwood home — because she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
Others, though, planned to abide by the order — and keep their fingers crossed that Sandy proves to be less fierce than is feared.
“I’m heeding the warning and we’re going,” Cheryl Nolan told CNN affiliate WKYW. “And I’m hoping that I have a house when I come back.”
Meanwhile, people who planned on hunkering down rushed to stay ahead of the storm.
At Richard Heilman’s Ace Hardware store in Alexandria, Virginia, the shelves were nearly emptied by people in a rush to snatch up supplies.
If the emphatic warnings from officials weren’t enough, fresh memories of recent long stretches without power over the past year or so — including a devastating and deadly storm system this summer that left millions in the dark for about a week — have spurred many to get out and not be caught flat-footed.
“People are a little bit more, ‘Hey, maybe I should go get my batteries now instead of waiting until they’re all gone,’” Heilman said.
Forecasters are still trying to pinpoint where Sandy will have its biggest impact when it finally does arrive entirely over land. Computer models show it striking somewhere along a roughly 700-mile stretch — from North Carolina to as far north as Connecticut.
But exactly where the center hits may not matter much, forecasters said, because the storm is so large.
“I want to make sure people don’t focus too much on where the center’s going to come ashore, because regardless of where that happens, the size of the storm is going to carve a pretty large swath of bad weather, both water and wind,” Knabb said.
The storm’s potential merger with the cold front could “energize this system” and make it more powerful, said Louis Uccellini, who is responsible for environmental prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Such a scenario is not unlike the weather system that led to 1991′s “Perfect Storm,” when moisture flung north by Hurricane Grace combined with a high pressure system and a cold front to produce a tempest in the north Atlantic during Halloween. But Grace never made landfall.
It won’t be until late Sunday, and in some cases Monday, when the Category 1 hurricane makes its full impact known on the United States.
By then, Wojtkowski and others in the Outer Banks will be starting the storm cleanup.
CNN’s Jareen Iman, Chelsea J. Carter, Greg Botelho, George Howell, Athena Jones, Shawn Nottingham, Alden Mahler Levine, Joe Sutton contributed to this report.